Green Koans: The Great Compassionate One’s True Eye

Clark Strand

CASE #3: The Great Compassionate One’s True Eye

Mayu asked Lin-chi, “The Great Compassionate One has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Which is the true eye?”

Two Butterflies by Seiko Morngingstar

Two Butterflies, by Seiko Morningstar

Mayu and Lin-chi (Rinzai) were 9th century Ch’an Buddhist monks.

The Great Compassionate One is the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, also known as Kannon or Kuan-yin. He/she is often depicted in Buddhist art as having 1,000 arms and hands, each of which displays an eye at the center of its palm.

Mayu’s question is like going to a field of grass blades and asking, “Which one of you is the boss?” We impose all kinds of foolishness on the world by supposing that it functions according to the logic of a self. How can we get a meaningful answer to the question “Who’s in charge?” if the question itself is wrong?

The hands of the world are open. Its eyes are open. Its arms are nimble, joyous, and free. We can deny this if we wish, but in that case we must be ready for a bit of a fright, because the thousand hands and eyes of the Great Compassionate One are juggling all beings at once. Avalokiteshvara is a portrait of Nature. Honestly, what else could it be?

Katsuki Sekita’s comment on this koan in Two Zen Classics is already green:

I once saw an example of such intimacy in an old priest who lived by himself in his temple. He had been ill, and when I visited him he was sitting quietly at the window basking in the sun. A few books of haiku and a notebook were beside him. He had been composing haiku. It was a calm winter day. In the course of our conversation, he pointed to a pine grove in front of the temple and said, “You know the Zen question, ‘The Bodhisattva of Great Mercy has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes; which is the true eye?’ I could not understand this for a long time. But the other day when I looked at the pine trees bending before the cold blasts from the mountain, I suddenly realized the meaning. You see, all the boughs, branches, twigs, and leaves simultaneously bend to the wind with tremendous vigor.” He said this with a quiet but earnest gesture. I could feel his close intimacy with the pine trees. He had to convey his experience to somebody else. It was the evening glow of his life. He died a few weeks after our meeting.

Where there’s a milkweed
There’s a monarch butterfly
About to open—
Of the thousand hands and eyes!

Further Reading:

Green Koans Case 1: Shakyamuni Touches the Earth
Green Koans Case 2: Shantideva's Sword

Green Koans Case 3: The Great Compassionate One's True Eye
Green Koans Case 4: One-Page Dharma
Green Koans Case 5: The Person of the Way
Green Koans Case 6: The Green Yogi
Green Koans Case 7: Rain of the Law
Green Koans Case 8: Bashō's Last Words

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Runningstream's picture

Thankyou for the Green Koans, in my state of fatigue today I cannot think of  a wise response other than to say thankyou.


with gratitude

ClarkStrand's picture

Hope your fatigue is short lived. In my part of the world the heat is the biggest thing happening right now--one 100 degree day after another. We don't have AC, so it is what it is...

James Lignori's picture


". . . we must be ready for a bit of a fright. . ."
We live with fear until we can see the truth that our own life is not apart from all life.  
Each life is held by the intimate sight and infinite embrace of Nature. This is the meaning of one thousand eyes and hands.


ClarkStrand's picture

Intimate sight. Infinite embrace. Very small and personal--and very big and generous at the same time. We are known by Nature down to our atoms. These, the Qur'an tells us, are actually numbered and kept track Allah. Of course, in Green Meditation we read the Qur'an, like everything else, as an eco-spiritual text. And so Nature and Allah are one.

karladiane's picture

I don't have a comment as such - I just wanted to say that I really appreciate and love the "Green Koan" series.

Thank you for these!


ClarkStrand's picture

I'm glad you're following the series. You may know that the Japanese word koan comes from an older Chinese word meaning "public document"--almost as if they were legal precedents or actual "cases." But I think the word may also have implied common property. Over the centuries koan study has tended to become more specialized and therefore obscure.

The object of this series is to find an earlier, more universal wisdom "in and behind" these sayings and episodes from the ancient past. I believe that ecology is destined to become the new lingua franca for all forms of religion and spirituality going forward into the next century, and so the idea here is to cultivate that common tongue and explore its mystical roots. Those roots exist within our own biology, and so there is no need to go far afield from our own experience in order to tap them.

This past week I posted the case itself (sans commentary and verse) on Facebook and people there joined in with an informal dharma exchange on the Great Compassionate One's True Eye. That could happen here as well, although it's also OK if it only happens on Facebook. Anyone should feel free to join right in.